[PHNUTR-L] Diagnosis: Conflict of Interest
fivestar at nutritionucanlivewith.com
Sun Jun 17 10:20:37 PDT 2007
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Diagnosis: Conflict of Interest
By DANIEL CARLAT
THE revelation that the diabetes drug Avandia can potentially cause
heart disease is the latest in a string of pharmaceutical
disappointments. Vioxx was pulled from the market in 2004 because it
doubled the risks for heart attacks and strokes. Eli Lilly recently paid
$750 million to settle lawsuits alleging that Zyprexa causes diabetes.
Many have criticized the Food and Drug Administration as being too lax
about monitoring drug safety.
While those criticisms have merit, there is another culprit: the
transformation of continuing medical education into an enterprise for
drug marketing. The chore of teaching doctors how to practice medicine
has been handed to the pharmaceutical industry. As a result, dangerous
side effects are rarely on the curriculum.
Most states require that doctors obtain a minimum number of credit hours
of continuing medical education each year to maintain their medical
licenses. Not so long ago, most of these courses were produced and paid
for by universities and medical associations. But this has changed
drastically over the past decade.
According to the most recent data available from the national
organization in charge of accrediting the courses, drug-industry
financing of continuing medical education has nearly quadrupled since
1998, from $302 million to $1.12 billion. Half of all continuing medical
education courses in the United States are now paid for by drug
companies, up from a third a decade ago. Because pharmaceutical
companies now set much of the agenda for what doctors learn about drugs,
crucial information about potential drug dangers is played down, to the
detriment of patient care.
For example, GlaxoSmithKline footed the bill for dozens of educational
courses intended to emphasize the benefits of Avandia over other drugs.
An influential Internet-based educational program paid for by the
company focused on specific studies that highlighted Avandia’s
advantages without discussing one of the drug’s most worrisome side
effects, increased levels of the lipids implicated in heart disease.
Avandia’s chief competitor, a drug from Takeda Pharmaceuticals called
Actos, improves lipid levels but was hardly mentioned. When
GlaxoSmithKline’s program did cite Actos, it did so tepidly. The
information in the course was presented by noted diabetes academics paid
by GlaxoSmithKline and other drug companies.
GlaxoSmithKline is not the only offender. The major organizations in
diabetes education, like the National Diabetes Education Initiative,
offer dozens of continuing medical education courses on diabetes that
are free to doctors and paid for by drug companies. Predictably, each
course focuses on the advantages of the sponsor’s product and minimizes
discussion of dangerous side effects.
Education that doubles as advertising for drug companies occurs in all
branches of medicine. Merck promoted Vioxx for arthritis by using
programs for continuing medical education, which helped contribute to
the more than 100 million prescriptions of the drug before it was pulled
from the market.
According to Dr. David Graham, a safety researcher for the Food and Drug
Administration, Vioxx was responsible for up to 140,000 cases of serious
heart disease from 1999 until 2004, when it was withdrawn. But the
potential cardiac dangers of Vioxx were played down in the courses paid
for by Merck. In one instance, the company canceled lectures it had
sponsored by a Stanford researcher who had mentioned, in talks to
doctors, the cardiac risks from taking Vioxx.
Drug companies should never have been allowed to become the primary
educator for America’s doctors. The Accreditation Council for Continuing
Medical Education, a nonprofit organization composed of the major
medical associations, establishes the rules that govern continuing
medical education. According to the guidelines, companies are forbidden
from directly paying doctors who teach continuing medical education courses.
But the standards have a loophole that allows drug companies to
circumvent the regulations. They hire for-profit “medical education
communication companies” to organize the courses. These companies
receive millions of dollars from drug companies to create course work
and to pay doctors to deliver the content. Sometimes, they pay doctors
to give lectures to other doctors. Other times, prominent doctors are
paid to be listed as the authors of journal articles that are written by
ghost writers, a practice that was extensively documented in court
records from a lawsuit against Pfizer.
Either way, the content is rarely developed by the identified experts.
Instead, it is developed by the undisclosed communication company, which
is paid by the sponsoring pharmaceutical company.
Essentially, this is a new twist on that well-known instrument of
corruption, money laundering. Drug companies don’t directly pay doctors
to teach courses. Instead, they pay someone else to cut the checks.
Similarly, the drug companies don’t explicitly tell doctors to say good
things about their products. Instead, they hire a company to write good
things about their products and to pay doctors to deliver the messages.
These shenanigans were recently spotlighted by Senator Max Baucus,
Democrat of Montana, and Senator Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa,
of the Senate Finance Committee. In April, their committee released a
report, two years in the making, concluding that drug companies have
used educational grants unethically as a way of marketing their products.
In response, the guidelines regarding commercial support for continuing
medical education are being reviewed. The solution could hardly be
simpler: any continuing medical education that is paid for by the drug
industry should not be accredited. Drug companies could still pay for
any educational event, article or pamphlet they choose, but their
courses and materials would no longer bear the imprimatur and implied
credibility of accreditation.
Doctors, in turn, would be encouraged to seek medical education from
sources that are not financed by drug companies. A renewed commitment to
unbiased education would allow doctors to learn about drug risks sooner.
This would be good for doctors, and even better for their patients.
Daniel Carlat, a professor at Tufts Medical School, is the editor in
chief of The Carlat Psychiatry Report.
Kathrynne Holden, MS, RD < fivestar at nutritionucanlivewith.com >
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